You can’t hope to control things. Learn to love the vertigo of experience instead.
(M. John Harrison What might it be like to live in Viriconium Fantastic Metropolis 2001)
M. John Harrison’s career to date has been an exercise in destruction – of the commonly accepted role of SF as an escapist literature, of the myth that SF cannot be ‘proper’ literature in any case, and of the comfortable assumptions and preconceptions of the genre’s core fan base about how SF should be and what it should set out to do.
When Harrison published the first of his trilogy of novels about the imaginary city of Viriconium, The Pastel City, in 1971, he was setting out to overturn what he saw as the ‘literalisation’ of the fantasy genre. Harrison’s Viriconium sequence highlighted the creative bankruptcy of commercial series fantasy by pointing up its over-reliance on overused tropes and hyper-detailed worldbuilding and then undermining it completely: In Viriconium, the third book in the Viriconium series, eventually relegates the eponymous city to the realm of the non-existent. Ironically, by metaphorically destroying his creation in such a way, Harrison returned to the fantasy genre much of the possibility it has always contained for magic, for metaphor, for poetry and for intellectual gamesmanship.
In 2002 with his Clarke Award-nominated novel Light, M. John Harrison played a similar opening gambit against the popular SF sub-genre of space opera, traditionally the literature of gung-ho space exploration, intergalactic conquest and super-technological advance. In his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Harrison has created a space opera that ridicules the notion of space opera, an anti-immersive fantasy, as he himself puts it, disguised as an immersive fantasy. The trilogy reaches its climax this July with the publication of the third book in the series, Empty Space,
In the first book, Light, Harrison introduces us to Michael Kearney, a theoretical physicist whose work will eventually lead to the invention of a version of faster-than-light space travel called the dynaflow, thus bringing about, by the twenty-third century, a vast space-diaspora of humankind. Kearney is also a serial killer who believes that he is being pursued by an existential monster called the Shrander. Alternating narrative strands involve us in the adventures of Seria Mau Genlicher, an ultra-rarefied breed of post-human space pilot known as a K-captain, and of Ed Chianese, a burned-out rocket jockey who still dreams of penetrating the ultimate no-go zone, the logic-defying and shape-shifting web of temporal effect and hyper-physics known as the Kefahuchi Tract.
In the 2007 follow-up to Light, the Clarke Award-winning Nova Swing, a section of the Kefahuchi Tract has fallen to earth in the far-distant extraterrestrial city of Saudade. The novel follows the attempts of Aschemann, a police detective, to investigate the activities of Vic Serotonin, an unpredictable loner who earns his living taking foolhardy ‘tourists’ into the Event Site, a career fraught with risks so perverse they cannot be predicted in advance.
In Empty Space, Aschemann’s one-time sidekick, known to us only as the Assistant, begins an investigation of her own, while Michael Kearney’s ex-wife Anna sets out on a quest to return an item of lost property to Kearney’s missing research partner Brian Tate. Ed Chianese returns, vastly changed, from his own suicide mission, while his old sparring partner Liv Hula is charged with the delivery of some highly dangerous cargo to regions unknown.
There’s plenty of what looks like space opera in the Empty Space books: there are exploding planets, after all, faster-than-light spaceships, genetic engineers, alien artefacts, obsessed and obsessive men of science. But this is Harrison we’re reading here, not Heinlein, and it’s crucial to realise that the action sequences and futuristic hardware are just the shadows thrown by the true narrative, a kind of armature of space opera on to which Harrison grafts the story he is actually intent on telling. The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy is principally the story of Anna and Michael Kearney, real-time human beings struggling to find some frame of reference within a world that is changing too fast to remain coherently explicable.
Far more than they will ever be space opera, the three Empty Space books form a three-part drama of adaptive alienation.
Harrison has often castigated readers as well as writers for wanting to ‘tame’ fantasy and science fiction by imposing upon it a system of the familiar. By demanding that it adhere to certain rules, such readers are restricting the imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction, clipping its wings, transforming a phoenix into something more closely resembling a battery chicken. By demanding that SF remain within the cordon of scientific veracity, the reader commits an act of imaginative vandalism. Harrison’s K-ships are constructed with words, not steel, not super-strength Perspex housings or semi-organic engine components; they were never meant to travel literally through space, but metaphorically, through the mind of the reader. From there, Harrison argues, they can go anywhere. In language that is a deft homage to the ghost of Raymond Chandler doffing his hat to T. S. Eliot, spliced together with the commentary from a twenty-second century video game and some of the more metaphysical lyrics of Nick Cave, Harrison renders the impossible possible, and not just possible but seemingly as the normal stuff of everyday life.
This philosophy drove them, in the late decades of the 21st Century, to launch themselves blind into dynaflow space, with no idea how to navigate it, in craft made of curiously unsophisticated materials. They had no idea where the first jump would take them. By the second jump, they had no idea where they started from. By the third they had no idea what “where” meant.
It was a hard problem, but not insoluble. Within a decade or two they had used the Tet-Kearno equations to derive an eleven-dimensional algorithm from the hunting behaviour of the shark. The Galaxy was theirs. Everywhere they went they found archeological traces of the people who had solved the problem before them – AIs, lobster gods, lizard men from deep time. They learned new science on a steep, fulfilling curve. Everything was waiting to be handled, smelled, eaten. You threw the rind over your shoulder. The eerie beauty of it was that you could be on to the next thing before the previous thing had lost its shine. (Empty Space p230)
There is an imagic clarity to Harrison’s SF that moves far beyond scientific logic, a voice that tells us that if we are able to imagine a thing it has in a sense already happened. We read and – like the gene-spliced, heavily tailored fighters of Preter Coeur – we simply become. The art of the Empty Space trilogy as a whole lies not in predicting futures so much as in practically defining the art of the imaginatively possible.
But what of Empty Space the novel? If the main play of Light had to do with discovering the links between the novel’s seemingly disparate characters and the worlds they inhabit, and the theme of Nova Swing is how those characters might escape the magnetic pull of the life they previously imagined for themselves, the recurring motif in Empty Space is the failure to connect. Aschemann’s unnamed Assistant is unable to ascertain not only the true nature of a possible homicide but the extent to which she still remains a human being. Liv Hula struggles to come to terms with the fact that the part of her life that defined her is most likely over. Most of all, Anna Waterman is unable to connect the life she has created for herself in the wake of Michael Kearney’s death – a new husband, a daughter, a lifestyle that, in the asset-stripped economy of the twenty-thirties, borders on the affluent – with the disturbing emotions and unanswered questions that are a recurring hangover from her life before. It is no surprise to discover that it is not the far future strands of the narrative that drive this novel, but Anna’s struggle to square what she knows with what she feels – both about herself and about the world that insists on constantly reinventing itself around her.
In the end, if you have a certain sort of mind, you can’t even separate the mundane from the bizarre. That’s why you find yourself face down in the bathroom at eighteen years old, studying the reflection of your own pores in the shiny black floor tiles. And if afterwards you choose a dysfunctional person to be your rescuer, how is that your fault ? Who could know? More importantly, the past can’t be mended – only left behind. People, the dead included, always demand too much. She was sick of being on someone else’s errand. “I did my best,” she thought, “and now I can’t be bothered any more.” (p258)
Harrison subtitled his novel A Haunting, and in truth Empty Space concerns itself with many hauntings, most of all with how the future is haunted by the past. What if the marvels and wonders inside the Kefahuchi Tract turn out mostly to be the contents of Anna Kearney’s summerhouse, the discarded detritus of a past that she can never quite bring herself to throw away? When expanded to fill the world, these shards of forgotten reality become secrets and marvels. Memory, as much as matter, can never be destroyed, it simply reasserts itself in an alternative form. In the final third of the book the tone darkens as the personal wars being waged in the minds of the novel’s characters threaten to spill out and engulf the universe. In his baroque descriptions of impossible intergalactic atrocities, what Harrison brings to mind most of all is the state of suspicion, hostility and constant war-readiness that is the everyday reality of our own twenty-first-century political culture, and most of all our own dangerous inured indifference towards it.
Then war was everywhere and it was your war, to be accessed however it fitted best into your busy schedule. Seven second segments to three minute documentaries. Focussed debate, embedded media. 24-hour live mano a mano between mixed assets in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, or a catch-up of the entire campaign – including interactive mapping of EMC’s feint towards Beta Carinae – from day one. In-depth views included: How They Took the Pulsed-Gamma War to Cassiotone 9; The Ever-Present Threat of Gravity Wave Lasing; and We Ask You How You Would Have Done It Differently! People loved it. The simulacrum of war forced them fully into the present, where they could hone their life anxieties and interpret them as excitement. Meanwhile, under cover of the coverage, the real war crept across the Halo until it threatened Panamax IV. (p237)
Readers of trad SF coming to the third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy hoping for a sense of closure might find themselves disappointed, but such a reaction would be both limited and limiting, and I would argue that M. John Harrison wrote Empty Space as a proof against the whole idea of closure. These are books that can be read in any order, singularly or together; no matter how you choose to enjoy them, their mystery will remain insoluble. This is not to say that there are no linear narratives at work here, because there are, and they are entrancing and mysterious and compulsively readable. But they are still not the main point of Harrison’s story. The point, as Ballard might have said, is not outer space but inner space, not the feats of ordinary heroes, but the paradoxes, treacheries and wonders of extraordinary humanity, what goes on in our own heads when confronted with the existential horror and glory of being alive.
But the other side of the fence things only deteriorated. Seaward in the fog, you could feel distance growing in everything. From Lizard Sex to The Metropole, the shutters were up all along the strip. The old fashioned signs banged in the wind; rust ran down from blisters in the paintwork. Outside the joint they called 90-Proof & Boys, the air tasted of salt. Ivy Mike’s lay silent and unoccupied. The circus wasn’t in town, and it was coming on to rain. (p192)
This is Harrison’s description of the sunset strip at New Venusport, but it might equally well be Blackpool in the off season, and it is Harrison’s ability to invest our accustomed reality with the nacreous, rarefied light of the future fantastic that is one of his greatest gifts to us as a novelist. In the end, no matter how far we dream of travelling, we are stuck with what we’ve got. What Harrison seems to be telling us is that what we’ve got is quite enough to be going along with.
(This review was first published in Starburst #379/iPad edition July 2012)